As Pam Jones, 22, steps onto a bus behind Tidyman’s, her grocery bag opens at the wrong end.
Mushrooms, onions and a jar of salsa spill onto the dusty floorboard.
No worry. Driver Mike McDonald quickly scoops up the veggies and sauce. A passenger plucks an unused plastic bag from her purse and hands it to Jones.
The North Idaho Community Express bus pulls from the curb with a growl.
“I love this bus,” Jones says wearily, as she plops into a seat, groceries intact. “We’re like a big family.”
This small, roving family will split up Wednesday when NICE halts city bus route service. Flagging ridership has made NICE’s two daily routes between downtown, North Idaho College and the Silver Lake Mall too expensive, says director Aaron Knight.
Buses simply don’t come by often enough to attract the general public, he says. For residents with cars in the driveway, the bus takes too long to get anywhere. With a $450,000 annual budget, NICE can’t increase daily trips.
Another rider flags down the NICE bus near Kootenai Medical Center. She scrambles into a seat and spies a familiar face.
“Hi, Ida. Where you going?” the new passenger asks.
“Just going home.”
“I saw George today.”
“What’d he have to say?”
The conversation is lost on the other halfdozen passengers. The scene is not.
“Everybody knows everybody here,” Jones says, and launches into an off-color joke.
She asks McDonald about his daughter. He teases her about her cat.
“I could sit on this bus all day and just listen to people,” says passenger Mary Deacon, 45.
“Sometimes I just get on and ride for the fun of it,” senior Kay Sorbel says in a whisper. “I’ve met some of the finest people I’ve ever known riding this bus.”
These single mothers, college students, senior citizens, non-drivers and people without cars already feel the pang of impending divorce.
“This bus has been a lifesaver for the older people,” says L.C. Johnson, 89. “It’s about the only way some of us get around anymore.”
Johnson caught the bus at Fourth Street and Harrison Avenue. She walked the quarter-mile from home, but couldn’t make it to ShopKo, where she planned to buy stationery.
“When you’re my age, you can’t walk everywhere anymore,” she says.
NICE’s taxi-like curb-to-curb service will continue after Wednesday, but will require 24-hour advance reservations. While route service costs $1 per ride, curb service will cost $2.50 for non-seniors.
“I can’t afford $2.50,” says regular rider Margie Saunders.
Karl Lyday, 30, rides two or three times a week, this time to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
“I go when I wake up and get the urge,” he says. “I kind of like that I can do it when I want, not schedule it a day ahead.”
Taxi cabs cost more, and on the bus “you get to know certain faces,” he says.
“And, of course, there’s Mike.”
No one understands the passengers’ plight more than driver McDonald, the 37-year-old patriarch of this family on wheels.
“These aren’t acquaintances, these are friends,” he says. “They all know my name. I know their kids, their problems. It’s far more than a job.”
People enjoy the bus in part because McDonald won’t tolerate silence - or bad moods, says college student Glenda Edwards, 24.
“He makes everybody smile,” she says.
He tells stories of his days in the Navy. He sings. Some days, he stops the bus and dances a brief soft-shoe in the aisle.
“Before you get on my bus you can be having the worst day of your life,” McDonald says. “But once you get on, you’re going to have fun.”
He leads discussions on marriage, government and education. His riders range in age from toddlers to centenarians, but the debates rarely get heated.
“Generation gap? That’s a crock,” he says. “People just don’t talk enough anymore.”
Four aisles back, Edwards interrupts. “You do,” she says and smiles.
McDonald still will see some of these folks after Wednesday’s change, but not all. He says he’ll miss them because they’re friends.
“People wonder why I can sit in this seat nine hours a day and drive around in circles,” McDonald says. “I think it’s self-explanatory.”
MEMO: This sidebar ran with story: NICE FACTS North Idaho Community Express was founded in 1990 by director Aaron Knight. Nearly 40 percent of its funding comes from federal grants, with the remainder from fares and local donations. The city of Coeur d’Alene chipped in $36,000 last year to maintain city routes. That funding stops Wednesday because the routes will stop. About 24,000 people a year ride the route service. Three times that many, mostly elderly and disabled residents, use the curb-to-curb service, Knight said. Ridership dropped from 1,800 in May 1994 to 1,450 in September. The service now costs NICE about $5 per passenger. Public transit nationwide averages less than $3 per passenger. Knight doesn’t expect to see route service return to Coeur d’Alene until the state paves the way for local-option public transit taxes.